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Film | Opinion

Why is the French Film industry only turning its back on Roman Polanski now?

@SamWKemp

In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested and charged with the rape and sodomy of the 13-year-old child Samantha Geimer. As a result, Polanski fled the United States, taking refuge in Paris as a fugitive from the US criminal justice system. You would think that would be enough to end someone’s career, but in 2002, Polanski was awarded the Academy Award for Best Director for his film The Pianist. Hollywood’s willingness to sweep Polanki’s paedophilia beneath the red carpet has been causing disconcertion for many years now, but none of that has stopped him from making movies. Nor has it stopped those movies from being offered funding and winning awards. Although, according to reports, that is beginning to change.

It would appear that over 40 years since Polanski was charged with the rape of Geimer, his past crimes are finally beginning to make a real impact on his career, even in a country he once felt secure. The director has been living in France since 1978, having fled the US after pleading guilty to charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Polanski has suffered none of the detrimental effects of exile. His time in France seems to have been a period of intense creativity, with the director continuing to reap the benefits of the Hollywood elite and working with Hollywood A-listers such as Adrien Brody, who starred in The Pianist.

That’s not to say Polanski’s alleged crimes haven’t affected his day to day life, however. In 2009, the director was placed under house arrest, shortly before more sexual abuse accusations came in 2010. More followed in 2017 and 2019. However, the production of his films went on uninterrupted, and many of them earned good reviews. In America, the #MeToo movement cast an especially harsh light on Polanski’s ilk. Both he and Bill Cosby were expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in May 2018. Unfortuantely, this did little to stop Polanski’s 2019 offering An Officer And A Spy from earning 12 nominations at the Césars and earning him the award for Best Director. Meanwhile, the US refused to screen the film.

The César ceremony wasn’t without drama. Polanski’s win provoked director Céline Sciamma and actress Adèle Haenel to storm out in protest. As Haenel walked away, she shouted “bravo la pédophilie!” exiting onto a street filled with protestors. As the police fired tear gas into the crowd, the 21-member panel that selected Polanski to win the award agreed to quit. Many have suggested that this may have been a watershed moment in the French film industry’s liberal attitude towards Polanski. According to Variety, Polanski’s new film, The Palace, has struggled to secure financing. The feature has been shooting in Switzerland for 15 weeks. The venture was apparently supported by a $15.8 million budget cobbled together by investors from Italy, Poland and Switzerland, many of whom have now disappeared, taking their money with them. According to producer Luca Barbaresch: “France didn’t want to invest a Euro on Polanski,” he said.

However, both Barbareschi and Polanski still hope that the French film industry will accept The Palace when it is finished. “If this film doesn’t get released in France,” the former said. “It’s a crime”. However, The general mood seems to be that Polanski will be waiting a long time. The Palace Hotel in Gstaad, where The Palace is set, happens to be where two of the director’s accusers claim their assaults took place. One was 15, the other 18. In this way, The Palace is Polanksi’s least palatable work to date, a filmic embodiment of his complete rejection of the trauma he afflicted in the 1970s and potentially afflicted in the 2000s and 2010s.

All of this begs the question: why now? Polanski may have been allowed to win an Academy Award in 2002, but the strength of the US #MeToo Movement would imply that such a decision would no longer be accepted. France has been a little slower on the uptake. The nation had a more complicated relationship with #MeToo. As the movement gained traction in America, France’s sister ‘Balance Ton Porc’ movement came under fire. It was met with significant backlash from women within the French film industry, including actress Catherine Deneuve, who signed an open letter defending men’s “freedom to pester” along with 99 others.

They argued that the move would lead to a “hatred of men” and a witch hunt of innocent individuals. The industry’s decision not to support The Palace hints toward a heightened awareness of how accusations of sexual assault can damage its reputation on the world stage. In April, a member of 50:50 Future, the French feminist group that served as the driving force behind the gender parity pledge signed by the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, was accused of sexual assault against another board member. A month before, Gerard Depardieu was accused of rape and sexual assault, only for the charges to be dropped due to lack of evidence. One get’s the sense that France doesn’t want to get involved with Polanski because he’s too much trouble, his history far too complex for an industry hoping to keep up with the new moral code set out by Hollywood in the years following #MeToo. At the same time, France may embrace The Palace on release. Variety’s findings certainly point to a severing of ties between France and Polanski, but the director has remarkable staying power. Only time will tell if his luck has finally run out.

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